Those Little Delicate Compliments

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an icky compliment is worse than no compliment at all. Exhibit A: Mr Collins, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. As he tells Mr Bennet, “…you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies.”

In this case, suggesting to Lady Catherine de Bourgh that her insipid daughter (who has no conversation, no skills, no hobbies, and whose only recorded ability is playing the card game Casino) would be the “brightest ornament” of the royal court if she’d ever gone to London, and would be doing any duke a favour by accepting his hand and the highest available rank outside the actual royal family.

A drawing of two well-dressed ladies sitting in an open four-wheeled carriage by a high fence backed with tall trees. In the foreground, a black-clad Mr Collins speaks, with his wife daintily dressed beside him. In the background, a small coachman stands in front of the horses, his stance uncomfortable.
Mr Collins blethers on while the young coachman becomes more and more desperate for a pee.

This is blatantly obviously flattery of the most un-credible variety, and therefore no compliment at all. Unless you are Lady Catherine, whose pride knows no bounds, and certainly isn’t going to be constrained by such a paltry thing as reality.

But Mr Collins is not the only character in a classic novel who believes that women like to be complimented. Gabriel Betteredge is the steward of the Verinder household in The Moonstone (a mystery by Wilkie Collins), and he has a very different idea of what kind of compliments they like. See his response to his daughter telling him about an alarming experience she’d had.

“On hearing these dreadful words, my daughter Penelope said she didn’t know what prevented her heart from flying straight out of her. I thought privately that it might have been her stays. All I said, however, was ‘You make my flesh creep.’ (Nota bene: Women like these little compliments.)”

A drawing of a distressed young woman clutches at a portly smiling man, who has his hands resting on her shoulders.

Personally, I’d much rather be told I’d made someone’s flesh creep – though that isn’t usually what I aim for in my writing – than to be fed some hot air about how much of a hit I’d make in high society. (I may have more talents than Anne de Bourgh, but I doubt they are of the sort to be appreciated by the Georgian aristocracy. I’d fail on every point of Miss Bingley’s catalogue: “a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages” – let alone the “certain something” in the way one walks and talks.)

What about you? Which sort of compliment would you prefer, whether a lady or otherwise?

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